Across South, Democrats Risk Speaking Boldly and Alienating Rural White Voters

JACKSON, Miss. — When Mike Espy, the Democrat challenging Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, faced his opponent at a debate ahead of this Tuesday’s runoff election, he had to make a choice: confront Ms. Hyde-Smith over her comments about attending “a public hanging,” which evoked the state’s racist history, or take a milder approach to avoid alienating the conservative-leaning white voters who will most likely decide the election.

He chose the latter.

“The world knows what she said, the world knows that those comments were harmful and hurtful,” Mr. Espy said afterward, sounding not entirely convinced.

In a state where politics has long been cleaved by race, Mr. Espy was reckoning with a conundrum that Democrats face across the South — from Mississippi and Alabama, which have been hostile to the party for years, to states like Florida and Georgia that are more hospitable in cities but still challenging in many predominantly white areas. Even as they made gains in the 2018 elections in the suburbs that were once Republican pillars, Democrats are seeing their already weak standing in rural America erode even further.

Now, as Democrats mount a last-minute and decidedly against-the-odds campaign to snatch a Senate seat in this most unlikely of states, they are facing the same problem that undermined some of their most-heralded candidates earlier this month.

The campaigns of Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida and Beto O’Rourke in Texas may have electrified black and progressive white voters — just as Ms. Hyde-Smith’s comments may energize Mississippians to support Mr. Espy — but they had an equal and opposite effect as well: in rural county after rural county, this trio of next-generation Democrats performed worse than President Barack Obama did in 2012.

As Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba put it, Ms. Hyde-Smith’s comments are “going to excite two different demographics: the base of supporters that follow this Trump ideology of saying what you want, and those individuals who share a close connection to that dehumanizing history.”

More ominous for Democrats was that the deep losses this year among rural and some exurban whites were not just confined to Southern states where they nominated unabashed progressives with hopes of transforming the midterm electorate. They lost four Senate seats, as well as governor’s races in states like Iowa and Ohio, with more conventional candidates whose strength in cities and upper-income suburbs was not enough to overcome their deficits in less densely populated areas.

As Democrats look toward the 2020 presidential election, this demographic chasm is alarming party strategists who fear that it could cement the G.O.P’s grip on the Senate and make it difficult to defeat President Trump.

“There’s a baseline percent of the white vote you have to get to win and you can’t get to it just through young and progressive excitement,” said Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who worked on Mr. Obama’s campaigns there and last week wrote a memo urging his party to grapple with why they got close but lost some key races this year. “The path from 48 to 50 is like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.”

While Mr. Obama is remembered for galvanizing an ascendant bloc of voters of color, millennials and unmarried women, Mr. Schale said, “the piece of the Obama coalition that people forget is that he did not sustain these kinds of losses in rural and exurban areas.”

Mr. Obama invested resources and manpower in some of these communities, but also had the benefit of campaigning when the electorate was marginally less polarized. Yet as Democrats consider how to win again in Florida, and how aggressively to contest Georgia in 2020, it remains unclear if they can reverse their downward trajectory in the most heavily white parts of each state.

Some African-Americans believe that it is futile in the Trump era to try to win over conservative-leaning white Republicans, especially in the South, because such voters form a “resistance” of their own against the country’s cultural and demographic changes. These voters aren’t only energized by campaigns by federal and state offices, but also recent fights over bathrooms and gender in North Carolina, gay rights in Georgia and displays of the Ten Commandments in Alabama, all of which roused powerful forces of conservatism rooted more in cultural traditionalism than racial grievance.

Roland Martin, an African-American commentator, said that Democrats should not forsake heavily white communities entirely; but ultimately, he said, the party’s fate in the South would swing on turnout among minority voters.

“Because there are still more white voters, what it means is that people of color are going to have to have higher turnout rates,” Mr. Martin said. “Andrew Gillum cannot win Florida if Miami-Dade turnout is below 60 percent, period.”

The turnout gap was stark in Florida, the most pivotal presidential swing state. Only 56 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Miami-Dade County, one of the worst showings in the state. But in Collier County, which includes Naples and where there are few African-Americans, turnout was over 73 percent — the highest the jurisdiction had ever recorded in a midterm campaign.

In Mississippi, which has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1982, the political conditions are even more forbidding. For one thing, the population of white liberals is vanishingly small. Further, Mr. Espy is a moderate by inclination and, his advisers privately concede, does not want to trigger a backlash by being too confrontational with Ms. Hyde-Smith.

“It is absolutely a challenge, but that’s a challenge that he had walking in the door,” Mr. Lumumba said of the difficulty of capitalizing on Ms. Hyde-Smith’s comments. “We were just waiting on the moment the conversation would happen.”

But if questions about race would inevitably surface in a Senate race between a black man and a white woman in Mississippi, Ms. Hyde-Smith’s misstep has also revived another enduring element of Southern politics: the tension between not wanting outsiders to shape their elections and not wanting their politicians to humiliate the state and vindicate old stereotypes.

“They just don’t want to be embarrassed,” said Joe Trippi, one of Mr. Espy’s strategists, who last year harnessed a mix of energy among African-American voters and shame among white voters to steer Doug Jones to victory in the Alabama Senate race over former state Supreme Court Justice Roy S. Moore.

The first part of this equation is unmistakably present: just a few hours after Walmart announced last week that it was asking for its contribution back from Ms. Hyde-Smith, word of the retailer’s snub had already made its way to the lunch line at the Big Apple Inn, a soul food carryout and a Jackson institution.

Yet while six companies have now asked Ms. Hyde-Smith to refund their donations because of her remarks, she has not been accused of sexual impropriety with minors in the fashion of Mr. Moore. And while they may be neighbors, Mississippi is not Alabama (Alabama has larger population centers and a larger segment of college-educated voters).

Unlike the defiant Mr. Moore, Ms. Hyde-Smith and her advisers have been torn over how to explain her comments about attending a public hanging.

They were divided on how to respond, according to Republicans familiar with the deliberations, but after internal G.O.P. polling indicated that her lead had eroded, it became clear she had to offer some measure of regret.

Yet it is an indication of how invested Republicans are in Trumpian politics — never betray weakness to their base of white voters — that Ms. Hyde-Smith refused to offer a full-throated apology during the candidates’ recent debate.

While she used the forum to apologize to “anyone that was offended,” the senator, who was appointed earlier this year to fill the seat vacated by the ailing Thad Cochran, quickly pivoted from contrition to confrontation in a statement that she recited from practice.

“This comment was twisted and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me,” she complained.

Her hybrid response was an indication that Ms. Hyde-Smith’s advisers are as concerned about turning off conservatives by bowing to liberal outrage as they are about moderate whites staying home out of embarrassment. That this is their assessment was also made clear when Republicans scrambled to deploy Mr. Trump to Mississippi for a pair of election eve rallies on opposite ends of the state.

To Mississippians of a certain age and moderate political inclination, the whole spectacle has been cringe-inducing if not entirely surprising.

“She’s a reflection of the politics of our state,” said Curtis Wilkie, a longtime political reporter who has returned home to teach at the University of Mississippi. “Just as we’re trying to rehabilitate our image, people do something to bring us back to the Jim Crow days.”

Or as Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican strategist and Jackson native, put it: “It’s three steps forward, two steps back.”

This year was supposed to mark a moment of progress for Mississippi. The state just opened a new history and civil rights museum under the same roof. Both offer an unvarnished account of Mississippi’s searing racial history, detailing the state’s record number of lynchings, portraying its segregation-era leaders as the white supremacists they were and altogether dispatching with “the ‘Lost Cause’ of the failed Confederacy,” as one display terms it.

But there’s something peculiar about the museum, as Lauren Stennis noted. Ms. Stennis is an artist and the granddaughter of former Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, a onetime segregationist. She has spent the last few years promoting a redesigned state flag that she devised to replace the current one, which is the last in the country to include the Confederate battle flag.

The new museum that seeks to be honest about the state’s past in its exhibits does not reckon with the present on the outside. Instead of flying Mississippi’s divisive flag or keeping it furled — decisions which would have offended the same constituencies that are pulling the South’s politics further apart — the state avoided the choice altogether. They just decided not to build a flagpole outside the museum.

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